These femmes fatales are devilish enough, but this isn’t another Halloween post.
I confess: I’ve seen some of these illustrations lurking around sites and blogs forever and always assumed they were retro styled but recent comic or pinup art. Not so. They’re but a few of dozens of cover illustrations from French paperback and digest novels done by “R & R Giordan”, which is really the brothers Raoul and Robert Giordan, who had a long and successful career doing comics, book covers and spot illustration work in the 1940’s through the 1970’s, particularly popular in science fiction and adventure titles.
The Giordan brothers came from Nice, Robert born in 1922, Raoul in 1926, and worked at a hotel during WWII. After a brief postwar stint at an animation studio, they began working in comics, much of their 1950’s-60’s era work being graphic novel style adaptations of popular science fiction books. In the 1970’s, Raoul began to drift away from comics and illustration work to focus on his own painting, and some years later, both had stopped commercial work altogether. Sadly, brother Robert passed away at the young age of only 61, though Raoul gave an SF/Fantasy comic one more go as late as the 1990’s. Raoul Giordan passed away in 2017.
Even though they’re best known in European science fiction/fantasy/adventure circles, the brothers did a lot of covers for mystery/crime fiction digests and paperbacks as well, some of which are shown here. Le Diable En Bas Nylon by Gerald Rose (The Devil In Nylon Stockings, no surprise) from 1952, and others, are indicative of their consistent style: A particularly ‘fatal’ femme fatale either beckons to some soon-to-be victim, or is already gloating over his downfall, as we see in Robert Trebor’s Mauvais Pretexte. There’s quite a bit about the Girodan brothers to be found online, but mostly in French, and four years of high school French doesn’t equip me to decipher more than a random word or two. Perhaps the less linguistically-challenged among you will fare better.
A little over a year ago, I got my hands on Stark House Press’ The Best Of Manhunt, edited by Jeff Vorzimmer (see link below for more on that book). A legendary postwar mystery/crime fiction pulp magazine like Manhunt clearly deserves more than just one “best of” volume, so Vorzimmer’s back with The Best Of Manhunt 2 (2020), a 420+ page companion trade pb. Much like the first book, there aren’t a lot of ‘extras’, such as author bio’s or cover reprint images. The stories are the attraction. The book opens with some brief entries including Peter Enfantino’s foreword, Jon L. Breen’s introduction and his 1968 article, “On The Passing Of Manhunt”, and finally a 1970 Robert Turner article “Life And Death Of A Magazine”. Those only take up twenty pages or so, and then it’s on to forty tales culled from 1953 through 1964 issues of Manhunt magazine.
The first book may have included a roster of more ‘marquee’ authors, but this follow-up volume still features familiar names like Fletcher Flora, Bruno Fischer, Erle Stanley Gardner, Wade Miller and Donald Westlake. Manhunt’s gritty, hard-boiled rep didn’t seem to attract many women writers, but you’ll find Delores Florine Stanton Forbes (1923 – 2013) included, appearing here as De Forbes. Helen Nielsen (1918 – 2002) was better known as a TV mystery scriptwriter, but her “You Can’t Trust A Man” from a 1955 issue is short, sweet tale with a gotcha ending, and it’s a real treat.
I don’t know if it makes sense to list “best of’s” from a “best of” book. So I’ll just point out my favorites. While the anthology finds noirish and hard-boiled crime and mayhem in every corner of the U.S. from Florida to Chicago, make-believe burgs and various nowheresvilles, my faves were coastal, one in New York and one in Los Angeles. Frank Kane (1912-1968) is the man behind the long running Johnny Liddell P.I. series of nearly thirty novels and numerous sort stories. His glib NYC gumshoe is too slick and smart-assed for some readers, but Kane’s non-Liddell story, “Key Witness” from a 1956 issue is near-perfect. In part a police procedural, it feels like it could have been written today save for a few anachronisms. There’s no wisecracks or trademark Kane leering, the longish tale was quite dark, gritty and, for me, wholly unexpected.
Heading west to Los Angeles, William Campbell Gault’s “Death Of A Big Wheel” from the April 1957 issue is a lengthy story featuring Hollywood private eye Joe Puma. Some innocent cocktail lounge small talk with a past-his-prime film star finds Puma mixed up with hard-as-nails B-movie studio starlets and gangsters. It’s a real fun read, and was just begging to made into a movie. Still ought to be, if you ask me.
Covers of some of the Manhunt issues the forty stories included in The Best Of Manhunt 2 are shown here. If you’re interested in postwar mystery/crime pulp fiction that’s a couple notches above the repetitious fistfights, gunplay and outlandish mysteries of 1930’s-40’s era pulps, you can’t go wrong with either (or both) of The Best of Manhunt books.
If you’re an Elmore Leonard (10.11.25 – 8.20.2013) fan, which I am, you’ll want to visit Crime Reads for Dwyer Murphy’s excellent piece “How Elmore Leonard Really Wrote His Novels – According To His Characters” (link below). Leonard was one of those incredibly prolific writers who built a loyal fan base of avid readers right alongside equally dedicated followers among writers who marveled at his streamlined and readable storytelling that always stripped away the superfluous. Everything superfluous. And did so with what seemed like effortless ease (which I’m certain it wasn’t). As Dwyer Murphy explains, Leonard named his characters and more or less told them to start talking, and that’s how the story unfolded. And it worked, by God, it really really worked.
Dwyer’s article is an interesting read in itself, and timely on Leonard’s birthday, but all the more so for the excellent links to previous Crime Reads articles on Elmore Leonard. Writer or reader, you’ll find them all worth a read, and below you’ll also find a link to a year-old post from right here about Leonard’s famous “rules for writers”.
Geoffrey Homes’ last novel Build My Gallows High (1946) was adapted by the author himself — under his real name, Daniel Mainwaring (1902 – 1977) — for the screenplay for Jacques Tourneur’s classic 1947 film noir Out Of The Past with Robert Mitchum, Jane Greer and Kirk Douglas. (See the preceding post for more about that.)
Name changes between a book and film adaptation are nothing new and often done with no apparent reason besides a screenwriter’s whim. Out Of The Past’s Jeff Bailey was Red Bailey in the book. As for Jane Greer’s Kathie Moffat, who’s rightly considered one of the postwar film noir era’s most iconic femmes fatales, she’s Harriet “Mumsie” McGonigle in Mainwaring/Homes’ novel. Mumsie? Seriously? Somehow, I just don’t see Robert Mitchum’s noir antihero forsaking all hope of redemption for someone named Mumsie McGonigle, even when played by Jane Greer.
There actually was a real-life Mumsie McGonigle in early 1940’s Los Angeles crime lore, a notorious Madame named Rose “Mumsie” McGonigle who ran a 24/7 brothel catering to celebrities and providing freebies to public officials as payoffs. When the law finally shut her down, Mumsie’s bribes must’ve worked, since all but one of 48 counts of pandering, procurement and statutory rape were dismissed. Mumsie’s rumored little black book listing Los Angeles politicians and studio bigwigs (and their various ‘proclivities’) may have also helped to get the charges dropped.
Geoffrey Homes’ Build My Gallows High came out in hardcover and later in paperback as an Ace Double Novel paired with Harry Whittington’s The Humming Box. But book titles, of course, can’t be copyrighted except in some very limited trademark brand name cases. If you’re looking for a copy of Mainwaring/Homes’ Build My Gallows High to compare the novel to the film Out Of The Past, don’t get confused with Roy Benard Sparkia’s 1956 Build My Gallows High, a Gold Medal paperback original about a series of murders in a resort community.
A panel of writers discussing the subject of sex in crime fiction could easily drift into arguments about gender politics or pontificating about the genre’s persistent reliance on sexualized violence. Now, don’t get me wrong: Those are vitally important topics that writers, readers and critics will continue to grapple with. But in Lisa Levy’s two-part Crime Reads piece (links below), you’ll feel more like you’ve been squeezed in between Robyn Harding, Alex Segura, P.J. Vernon, Kelly J. Ford, Layne Fargo, and Laura Lippman – each a mystery/crime fiction scribe who, to one degree or another, has wrestled with sexual content in their own work – and wonder if you’re the only person at the table who didn’t knock back a few before the fast-paced conversation commenced. There’s precious little pontificating here.
Part One is titled “Let’s Talk About Sex In Crime Fiction: A Roundtable Discussion”. But Levy acknowledges in the first paragraph, “Let’s talk about why we don’t talk about sex in crime fiction”. As she and her roundtable members concede, the plain fact is that many (if not even most) mystery and crime fiction novels tend to steer clear of sex, and I’m not only pointing to cozies.
But let’s be clear: When talking about “sex” in crime fiction, the panel’s not talking about the voyeuristic and sexified violence that permeates so many suspense thrillers and serial killer novels. Whether you think it’s good, bad, puzzingly creepy or downright repellant, many thrillers rely on sexualized stalking, torture, rape and murder. Writers crank ‘em out and readers continue to devour them. But that’s not at all what these writers are addressing. They’re simply talking about sex. Characters who are driven by sex, think about sex or engage in sex…novels that may require sex scenes of whatever duration, detail and level of decadence from vanilla to…well, decadent.
Part Two is “What Are The Sexiest Books In Contemporary Crime Fiction?”. Here the panel tosses out a wide array of very different writers and novels that might be considered ‘sexy’ or at least include scenes in which the protagonists engage in sex. As to why mystery/crime fiction novels frequently seem to sidestep sex? Well, read Levy’s piece at Crime Reads yourself to see what these writers think. Is it because crime fiction typically deals with really awful things – crimes, after all, which often as not include murder – so that sex scenes would seem out of place, intrusive and gratingly gratuitous? Is it because so many mystery and crime fiction novels still feature middle aged white guy private eyes (with no shortage of recovering alcoholics and other troubled souls) whose bedroom antics may not provide for much sizzle? Could the continuing evolution and expansion of the genre comfortably embrace more – and more diverse – sexual content? And even if it could, should it?
Long before I typed the first sentence for my own current project (The Stiletto Gumshoe, no surprise) and the character was still forming in my head, I knew that there would indeed be sexual content. It was a crucial part of illustrating just who the protagonist was and would help to define her in context of her environment: an insular ethnic blue-collar neighborhood in the late 1950’s/early 1960’s, when enormous social changes were still a few years away. She’d be chastised by her nosy landlady, teased by her friends, completely misunderstood by men and finally forced to do a little soul searching about her behavior (this is 1959, after all) including how some unwise decisions of the romantic (or lusty) variety got her mixed up with blackmailers, thugs with badges and murder in the first place.
But, that’s my project. In a lot of other writers’ work, the same thing might not apply, and what goes on behind the protagonist’s closed bedroom door might well be completely out of place.
Levy and crew don’t really provide answers so much as share questions about sex in crime fiction (while providing a fertile list of writers and novels worth discovering or revisiting). And whether you’re a mystery/crime fiction reader, or a writer agonizing over some sexual content in your projects – and if doing so, then precisely how and how much – this two-part roundtable will give you something to think about. On the fun side, it’ll probably ignite a chuckle or two along the way. Levy’s Crime Reads panel had some fun with this one!
Austrian artist Rudolph Sieber-Lonati (1924 – 1990) was best known for his colorful and action-packed science fiction, horror and western illustrations, but he also painted a number of crime digest and paperback covers. An excellent example: This illustration for G. W. Jones’ Morgen Wirst Du Nicht Mehr Leben, one of that prolific writer’s many “Fledermaus” and “Die Schwarz Fledermaus” digests. Unreliable online translators work that title out as “Tomorrow You Won’t Live Anymore”, but what do you want to bet it’s really “Tomorrow, You Die”?
A couple posts back I mentioned Susan Shapiro’s article “Genre Fluidity” from the September/October issue of Writer’s Digest magazine. That’s genre, not gender, and while the piece largely dealt with rethinking in-progress projects for altogether different genres, the genre bending notion was top of mind while I concurrently wrapped up Elizabeth Hand’s new Cass Neary novel, The Book Of Lamps And Banners, a 2020 Mulholland Books hardcover, and a textbook example of “genre fluidity”.
I don’t recall if I bought Hand’s first Cass Neary novel, Generation Loss (2008), as soon as it came out or discovered it sometime later. All I remember is how completely surprised and utterly enthralled I was by the author’s addictive mix of (what might seem at first like) indulgent literary fiction with mystery/crime fiction…all dosed with an unexpected bit of dark fantasy.
If you’ve read Hand’s Cass Neary novels, you know what I mean. If you haven’t…well, you just have to plunge in and see for yourself.
To begin with, Cass Neary herself is a memorable mix, like those Just Kids Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe merged into one person, with a decadent and dangerous dash of Nan Goldin and Chrissie Hynde stirred in. Briefly a gallery scene darling for her stark and daring photos of New York’s new wave scene and the Big Apple’s rotten core, Soho salon sales and a now-collectible coffee table monograph’s money promptly went right up her nose and into her veins. After an extended stay in rehab, Cass emerged as a has-been, reduced to working in the Strand Bookstore in order to hold onto her rent-controlled apartment. Working the Strand’s stock room, that is, following some ‘incidents’ with customers.
Still fueled by a flirtation with any available substance and ever on a doomed quest to reunite with her soulmate, Quinn, the remnants of Cass’ reputation (or notoriety) drag her into mysterious situations and ever deepening danger from coastal Maine to Europe. Seemingly innocent assignments and chance meetings inevitably go bad and leave behind a frightening body count. By the second novel, she’s a person of interest to the U.S. authorities following the deadly aftermath of her brief stay in Maine. In the opening pages of The Book Of Lamps And Banners, Cass is skulking through London with a thousand stolen Euros and a fake passport, evading Interpol. Another ‘chance meeting’ (or is it?) finds her tagging along with an old stateside acquaintance, now a rare book dealer delivering a rare and priceless book of ancient dark magic. No surprise, the handoff doesn’t go down as planned, the buyer is murdered, and before the night is out, Cass is mixed up with a troubled young app developer, white supremacists, Nordic mysticists and murderers. Like each of the Cass Neary novels, the line between reality and something ‘other’ is indistinct here, much of it filtered through her beloved Konica’s lens onto increasingly hard-to-come by Tri-X film. Though Cass Neary’s a flesh and blood person with all too-human foibles and addictions, photography is something nearly mystical for her, which may be why she winds up with weird earth goddess worshippers, Neo-Nazi ritualists and murderous madmen hunting for dark grimoires.
Hard-boiled and classic mystery fans beware: There are no gumshoes here. No retired cops attending AA meetings in between solving crimes, no suburban caterers or chefs stumbling over dead bodies and definitely no kitty cats sniffing out crooks. Elizabeth Hand’s Cass Neary novels are unrelentingly dark and gritty, whether cruising rain-soaked London streets or stomping through eerie Swedish forests. Is she an investigator? Well, a reluctant – albeit determined – one, yes. But Cass Neary has more in common with Lou Reed than Lew Archer.
Elizabeth Hand’s The Book Of Lamps And Banners can deservedly be shelved in any bookstore’s Fiction & Literature section. It certainly should be cross-merchandised in the Mystery section. And some renegade booksellers will put it in their SF/Fantasy/Horror sections, and I’m not sure that’s entirely wrong. Hand blurs genre lines with a skill that mirrors her Cass Neary’s deft touch with the camera shutter. If I sound a little too fannish here, I’m not ashamed. For me, The Book Of Lamps And Banners was a literate neo-noir masterpiece, as each of the prior Cass Neary novels has been, and it’ll be a long, long wait for the next one, presuming that Elizabeth Hand will grace us with another.
Call him a poet of noir, or what you will. Author Jim Thompson (9.27.06 – 4.7.1977) was born today, 114 years ago. Regrettably, Thompson received far too little critical acclaim during his lifetime, but thankfully the work is there now for us to delve into whenever we’re eager for a trip into darkness, though it’s amazing how many bookseller and library mystery/crime fiction sections often carry no Thompson works.
Georgetown University professor Susanna Lee’s Detectives In The Shadows (2020 Johns Hopkins University Press) is subtitled “A Hard-Boiled History”, and some may quibble with that. Lee’s 216-page hardcover (the last 46 pages comprised of appendices and footnotes) is less a ‘history’ of fictional hard-boiled detectives and more a close look at how a shortlist of exemplary private eye characters from literature and broadcast media represent and echo their eras.
If you’ve been burned in the past by academics’ books, I can relate. Susanna Lee previously authored Hard-Boiled Crime Fiction And The Decline Of Moral Authority, but also Proust’s Swann’s Way and Stendahl’s The Red And The Black among other titles, and those might give anyone the willies if they’re disinterested in a return to high school and college required reading lists. (You say ‘Proust’ and I’m automatically fleeing the other way, one particularly disastrous college term paper still nagging at me to this day.)
But, fear not. Detectives In The Shadows is engaging and readable throughout, and I for one would’ve been happy with another 100 pages to devour. She selects a key hard-boiled detective to represent different periods, starting with Carroll John Daly’s Terry Mack as the start of the hard-boiled detective sub-genre, soon supplanted by that same writer’s more popular Race Williams, both of them Black Mask magazine staples. Dashiell Hammett’s Continental Op and Sam Spade embody the late 1920’s and early Depression years, Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe represents the 1930’s-40’s, and Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer violently echoes the post-WWII Cold War era. Lee dismisses the 1960’s altogether, considering its social upheavals unfriendly to hard-boiled private eyes’ rugged individualism and quasi-vigilanteism. She jumps to the 1970’s with Robert Parker’s Spencer and his first appearance in The Godwulf Manuscript in 1973. From Parker’s Spencer, Lee switches from fiction to the screen with HBO’s The Wire and True Detective series, and lastly, Netflix’ Jessica Jones. Brief mentions of broadcast television’s The Rockford Files and David Janssen as Harry O may still leave some readers scratching their heads. Wither Kinsey Milhone and V.I. Warshawski? Lew Archer and Easy Rawlins? The roster could continue, but again I’ll point out that Susanna Lee didn’t assemble a laundry list of hard-boiled detectives, but instead, aimed to show how the uniquely American literary invention of the lone-wolf hard-boiled P.I. represents evolving periods in modern history.
Coming from a steady diet of cozies and ready to take a peek at the dark, violent world of hard-boiled detective literature? Then pick another non-fiction book to provide you with an overview, but keep Susanna Lee’s Detectives In The Shadows on hand for a later read when you want to delve deeper into what these iconic characters represent.
Well, it won’t be out till November 10th (and who knows if it’ll really be available immediately). But I’ll definitely be pre-ordering Colin Larkin’s Cover Me: The Art Of Pan Books 1950 – 1965. Sure, $45 is steep, but well worth it for a 256 page book with over 300 cover illustrations (bet there’ll be a lot of Sam Peffer examples). I’ll always admit to favoring U.S. postwar pb cover illustration work over the UK, continental Europe and other markets. But that doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy them all! Looking forward to this one.